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Yellow Vest protesters clash with French riot police near the Hotel des Invalides in Paris. Yellow Vest protesters clash with French riot police near the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, Dec. 1, 2018 (Sipa photo via AP Images).

Michel Houellebecq and the Tragedy of the EU

Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019

French author Michel Houellebecq, whose latest novel “Serotonin” was released earlier this month to widespread acclaim, has acquired the reputation of being something of a prophet. This is mainly because his previous effort, “Submission,” which envisioned an Islamicized France circa 2022, was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. Another of his novels, “Platform,” which culminated with an Islamist terrorist attack on a tourist resort, was published a week before Sept. 11, 2001.

“Serotonin” has similarly been described by some as having foreseen France’s current Yellow Vest movement because it includes a passage describing a protest by French dairy farmers who block traffic on a major highway. There’s nothing unprecedented or even unusual about such protests in France, however. And while Houellebecq’s fictionalized protest ends in violence, the novel makes no further mention of it inspiring an insurrectionary mood or moment, or even generalized discontent.

But if Houellebecq is not the prophet some make him out to be, he is a visionary and above all an assassin. With each of his successive novels, he has managed to crystallize a particular social tension afflicting French society and, more broadly, Western civilization, while mercilessly eviscerating the conventional wisdoms and groupthink contributing to—or blindly ignoring—those tensions. And his acid humor accomplishes this in a way that makes it impossible even for true believers in those ideas to take them quite as seriously after having finished one of his page-turners. This, combined with his penchant for provocation, makes the appearance of one of his novels as much a social and political event as a cultural one.

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It’s unfortunate for the European Union, then, that Brussels functions as a central, if distant and two-dimensional character in “Serotonin.” The novel’s protagonist, a 46-year-old agronomist working for the French Ministry of Agriculture, comes to realize he has spent his entire professional life waging a futile stealth campaign to defend the country’s agricultural traditions against the neoliberal logic of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP. One of the novel’s major plot threads revolves around the devastation, both economic and social, that the removal of EU milk quotas in 2015 visited on French dairy farmers.

By Houellebecq’s telling, the EU is at once too big and too small: Its productive capacity vastly outstrips its internal ability to consume, even as it is doomed to lose the global competition for markets for its excess production. The result is a brutal yet futile attempt to increase competitiveness through productivity, driving down prices for producers and wages for workers. In “Serotonin,” he picks his target effectively to make his point. France’s agricultural model, with smaller holdings and low productivity, is particularly ill-suited to compete with other EU producers like Ireland and Germany, despite the fact that France has historically been the greatest beneficiary and most ardent defender of the CAP. Worse still, the apocalypse is on the horizon in the form of producers from South America’s Mercosur trade bloc, which Houellebecq suggests will inevitably gain access to the European market; never mind that France’s insistence on protecting its agricultural sector has been one of the major obstacles to an EU-Mercosur trade deal.

Given the French and German leaders’ weakness at the moment, it’s safe to say that any hopes for substantive reforms to the EU are dead in the water.

The EU dairy quotas in question were an effort—not always successful—to ensure that European overcapacity did not drive prices below costs. They were removed amid great optimism over European dairy farmers’ ability to capture export markets with their increased production. Those hopes have since proven illusory, thanks to a drop in Chinese demand and Russia’s boycott of European dairy and agricultural products in response to EU-imposed sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and ongoing intervention in Ukraine. The result for France’s dairy farmers has indeed been catastrophic, with low prices leading some to protest intra-European competition and others to abandon the farm, accompanied by an alarming rise in suicides.

In the novel, when asked by a desperate dairy farmer if there is any chance the EU will ever change course and step in to protect them, Houellebecq’s protagonist replies that it’s out of the question, as the “ideological padlock” of liberalized trade is too strong for Brussels to overcome. This is in keeping with the tragic strain of Houellebecq’s work, in which individual protagonists—and Western civilization more broadly—shuffle along in numbed but lucid depression toward an inexorable death. For Houellebecq, this decline, whether of his protagonists or of Western civilization, is chosen, an accumulation of self-imposed ideological padlocks that rule out any potential for change or redemption.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the sense of loss Houellebecq conveys—loss of livelihoods but also traditions. Charles de Gaulle allegedly questioned how one can govern a country that has 300 varieties of cheese. Houellebecq doesn’t offer an answer; he is, after all, a novelist, not a pundit. But “Serotonin” draws a compelling portrait of the human cost of sacrificing that variety, which is nothing other than the expression of France’s ungovernable regional and cultural specificity, on the altar of globalized productivity and competitiveness. This is in some ways part of what’s driving the Yellow Vest movement, as well as Brexit and other expressions of nationalism these days in Europe.

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It’s also hard, having just finished reading “Serotonin,” not to see current EU politics in something of a comic light, as if accompanied by the echoes of Houellebecq’s acid commentary. Yesterday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a new treaty updating the historic 1963 accord that bound the two countries together at the heart of what would become the EU, and recommitting both sides to the Franco-German friendship as a motor of further European integration. Merkel stressed the need to find “forward-looking answers,” and Macron promised they would “show the way forward.”

That ought to have a noble and solemn ring to it. Given both leaders’ weakness at the moment, however, it’s safe to say that any hopes for substantive reforms to the EU are dead in the water. The entire exercise seemed to unintentionally underscore the futility of the task, giving yesterday’s ceremony an air of farce rather than grandeur, which the underwhelming content of the treaty itself only amplified.

It is very possible, and even likely, that the EU will muddle along in its current form, surviving not due to any return to vitality, but rather because the alternatives—whether further integration or disbanding—are too painful and uncertain to contemplate. In this, it bears a striking resemblance to one of Houellebecq’s protagonists, with the only difference being Houellebecq’s characters know they are doomed.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every Wednesday.